|President Bush opens his institute's Conference on Cyber Dissidents: "The Bush Institute is going to be involved in the freedom movement."|
The George W. Bush Presidential Center
at Southern Methodist University won't be breaking ground till November, but its policy arm, the Bush Institute
, has already had a busy spring. Shacking up in SMU's Collins Center, it hosted its first events last month, covering education leadership, literacy in Afghanistan and natural gas -- an impressive programming pace, but none ventured too close to the Bush legacy's messy parts.
For skeptics convinced it's a matter of time till the think tank shows its true colors as a neocon retirement home, things got a little juicier Monday for the Bush Institute's fourth event: a conference of online dissidents
from trouble spots around the world. The institute pulled together six big anti-government voices from China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba to discuss using the Web in the interest of freedom -- or what President Bush, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
CEO Jeffrey Gedmin more specifically called "the freedom agenda."
Three of the six cyber dissidents
live in exile. For organizing rallies and writing anti-government blogs, Syrian-born Ahed Al Hendi spent over a month in a three-by-two-foot prison cell. "It's a risk being here, but we believe in this," Venezuelan activist Rodrigo Diamanti
said. "We're very happy [the Venezuelan government] allowed us to come here. We don't know if they'll allow us to come back."
Bush, and experts who spoke after him, began by framing the Internet not as the automatic freedom generator it once promised to be, but as yet another battleground in the struggle against tyranny. With his opening remarks, Bush made it clear the day wasn't just about freedom fighters trading war stories, but about laying out a plan of action.
"One of the things I was nervous about about a think tank is that all we do is have people come here and they sit around and think," Bush said. "I think it's important not only to have people come around and think and have experts write and opine, but also to figure out how to act."